A speaker’s attitude towards another speaker in conversation can influence the way (s)he talks. A social psychological approach to language variation, Accommodation Theory – more precisely Speech Accommodation Theory (SAT) – has been developed by the British language psychologist Howard Giles and others since the early 1970s. They aim at providing an explanation why speakers accommodate – i.e. change the manner in which they speak – in face-to-face interaction.
The two key concepts of SAT are convergence and divergence. These are two linguistic strategies which are applied by interlocutors; they denote the general directions in which accommodation can take place in a speech situation. Depending on the attitude that speakers show towards each other, their language varieties and the shared social context, accommodation can take the form of either convergence or divergence. While convergence constitutes a linguistic, i.e. accommodative, process in which a speaker modifies his/her own speech to resemble more closely the addressee’s speech, divergence refers to a process in which a speaker linguistically moves in the opposite direction in order to make his/her speech sound more unlike that of the person (s)he is talking to.
Convergence refers to the process through which an individual shifts speech patterns in interaction so that they more closely resemble the speech patterns of speech partners.People can converge through many features of communication such as their use of language, their “pronunciation, pause and utterance lengths, vocal intensities, non verbal behaviors, and intimacy of self disclosures”(Giles and Smith, 1979, 46), but they do not necessarily have to converge simultaneously at all of these levels. In fact, people can both converge at some levels and diverge through others at the same time.[People use convergence based on their perceptions of others, as well as what they are able to infer about them and their backgrounds. Attraction (likability, charisma, credibility), also triggers convergence. As Turner and West note, “When communicators are attracted to others they will converge in their conversations. On the other hand, as the similarity attraction theory highlights, when people have similar beliefs, personality and behaviors they tend to be more attracted towards each other. To achieve a “desired social distance”(Pardo, 2016), people use language to converge more towards a conversational partner they are attracted to. The desire to make social interaction flow subsequently results in convergence. Many people tend to use converge with one another because they want to feel a sense of fitting in and experience social approval to the people around them. Thus, when one individual shifts speech and non-verbal behaviors in order to assimilate to the other it can result in a more favorable appraisal of him, that is: when convergence is perceived positively it is likely to enhance both the conversation and the attraction between the listener and the speaker. For this reason it could be said that convergence reflects “an individual’s desire for social approval from his interlocutor, and that the greater the individual’s need for social approval, the more likely he or she is to converge. Besides attraction, other factors that “influence the intensity of this” need of approval and hence the level of convergence “include the probability of future interactions, the social status of the addressee, and interpersonal variability for need of social approval”. Other factors that determine whether and to what extent individuals converge in interaction are their relational history, social norms and power variables. Because individuals are more likely to converge to the individual with the higher status it is likely that the speech in a conversation will reflect the speech of the individual with the higher status. Converging also increases the effectiveness of communication, which in turn lowers uncertainty, interpersonal anxiety, and increases mutual understanding. This is another factor that motivates people to converge. People adapt their communication behaviors to establish common ground with another individual. This includes vocal tone/volume, word choice, etc. Social distance is the extent to which two people that are communicating with each other are similar or different. Discourse management is the selection of topics in communication that lead to successful exchanges and minimizing social distance.
Divergence is a linguistic strategy whereby a member of a speech community accentuates the linguistic differences between himself and his interlocutor.Given that communication features are often core dimensions of what it is to be a member of a group, divergence can be regarded as a very important tactic of displaying a valued distinctiveness from the other. This helps to sustain a positive image of one’s in-group and hence to strengthen one’s social identity. Divergence is commonly used to establish dominance or power in an interaction. For example, if a recent college graduate becomes a professor, they might be teaching students who are around the same age as them. Therefore, it is important for the professor to communicate in a way that the students are aware the professor has more authority than them. Another case where there is a need for divergence are when professionals are with clients. In a 2001 study, doctors and patients discussed musculoskeletal disorders and it was observed that there were miscommunications that occurred because the participants chose to converge during the communication rather than to accentuate their position differences. Patients in the study felt more comfortable discussing their problems because they felt “positive about their doctor’s capacity to understand them. Communicating in a fashion to make speech different can also be interpreted as a sign of dislike towards a person or group.For example, “when you run into a disliked classmate from high school, your vocal pattern becomes more different from that classmate’s.This represents the act of divergence because you are purposely changing your speech to not sound like that person.